Steve McQueen: He Knew Where He Was Going!

by Ron F. Hale

Actor, Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen was born in 1930—at a time when the Great Depression was clamping down on the “Roaring Twenties.” His mother struggled with alcoholism while sometimes earning quick money as a prostitute. His father abandoned them early while working as a stunt pilot for a flying circus. Young McQueen would grow up tougher than a two-dollar steak.

School gave McQueen little refuge as dyslexia brought frustration. Trapped in a vicious cycle of stays with his grandparents, his great-uncle in Missouri, and several attempts with his Mom’s second and third husbands made McQueen’s childhood topsy-turvy. Stealing hubcaps as a teenager landed him in a private reform school for troubled boys. The California Junior Boys Republic gave McQueen some needed stability and a three-year stretch with the United States Marine Corp nurtured discipline.

Blazing blue eyes softened his tough guy persona. McQueen’s rough and tumble life prepared him for the cruel and unusual punishment many young bit-part actors suffer climbing the rickety ladder to Hollywood stardom. He was labeled “demanding” and “brooding” for being a hardnosed negotiator before accepting film roles. Maybe his wounded childhood defined the rest of his life–driving him to grapple for some illusion of control?

With a pocket full of dreams, McQueen began acting lessons in 1952 and received several minor theater roles. He earned extra bucks as a week-end motorcycle racer to avoid shut-off notices and eviction letters. Several acting parts in cheesy B-movies parlayed into the 27-year old actor’s leading debut fighting an invading alien amoeba in The Blob. This 1958 low-budget sci-fi filled drive-in theaters and eventually evolved into a cult classic.  

Television would introduce McQueen to America in 1958 playing a bounty hunter named Josh Randall in the series Wanted Dead or Alive. With an unruffled demeanor and unique sawed-off Winchester model 1892 carbine saddled in a fast-draw leg holster, McQueen started earning his nickname as the “King of Cool.” The show was a hit!

Beginning with the movie Magnificent Seven in 1960, McQueen was able to turn his box-office success into becoming the highest paid actor of his day. His newfound millions afforded him Malibu homes, fast cars, bikes, beautiful women, two divorces, alimony, child support, drugs, alcohol, and airplanes.

In good times and bad, McQueen never forgot about the at-risk youngsters at the Boys Republic in Chino Hills, California. He made many visits, gave talks, and wrote personal checks to this non-profit school and treatment community that helped him and 30,000 others since 1907.

McQueen’s fast-lane lifestyle increased the gravitational pull of his fading Hollywood star by the late 1970s. He retreated from the heart of Hollywood to the small town of Santa Paula with this third wife Barbara Minty. They made their home in a well-worn airport hangar surrounded by his bikes, cars, and a newly acquired vintage yellow Stearman bi-plane. Strangely enough, his long-gone father may have flown the same kind of plane.

With a strong desire to recondition the old plane for flying, McQueen found a mentor by the name of Sammy Mason. Mason was a legend among aerobatic flyers. His background as a daring test pilot and having been the highest paid performer in national airshows quickly won the respect of McQueen. They spent a lot of time together. McQueen started noticing something authentic and genuine about the aging dare-devil and his loving family.

Getting dead serious one day, Mason was able to explain that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ had made the difference in his life. Miracle of miracles, McQueen started showing up at Mason’s church, the Ventura Missionary Church, pastored by Leonard Dewitt.

Weeks later, after a two-hour Q & A session with Pastor Dewitt, McQueen confessed that he had called on Jesus to forgive and save him during a recent church service. With surprised joy, McQueen declared, “I’m a born-again Christian!” With the help of DeWitt and Mason, Steve began soaking up the Scriptures like a sponge. A radical change was seen in his life by the people around him.

Eleven months later, that nagging cough was officially diagnosed as pleural mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer. In its latter stage, the cancer was aggressive and mean. When his doctors spoke of his care instead of his cure, Steve sought unconventional forms of treatment. Steve told Pastor Dewitt, “Now that I am a Christian I really want to live but if He chooses otherwise it is okay because I know where I am going.”

Hearing that Billy Graham was in California, the dying actor reached out to the evangelist for a possible meeting. Graham spent some time with Steve just before he was being flown to a hospital in Mexico. Steve shared his story with Graham as they rode to the airport. Having misplaced his Bible, Graham inscribed his own Bible and gave it to Steve before they prayed together.

Four days later, Steve was found with Billy’s Bible cradled on his chest. He had quietly slipped into eternity reading the greatest promise the world has ever known: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

If Steve’s crazy childhood defined his adult life, the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ defined his eternity. The lavishing love of his Heavenly Father was being poured out on this once unwanted boy. Hollywood’s glitz and glitter paled in comparison to the glory of God in heaven.

Steve knew where he was going – what about you?